Middle Eastern Dance: A Cabaret Act or Fine Art?
August 18, 2000
I would love to see Middle Eastern dance become a respected form by society at large and the Arts community in particular. We are not at the moment looked upon as artists in the same standing as Western dancers and other performing artists partly because of the intrinsic sexuality of Arabic dance, which our relatively puritanical society has trouble coming to grips with, but more importantly and more obviously because we are still not mainstream enough to be widely understood, and we are not working enough in traditional venues ( i.e. theater) to be seen as equals to those who are. I am not trying to blame our predicament on the ignorance of the American public. This dance is not American, and not mainstream, so there is no reason why we should expect people to be informed. It falls on us who feel for this art form to educate and work for the respect we seek. I think that we are well on our way to this goal, but there are some things we can do to facilitate it.
First of all, we need to align ourselves more with the dance community outside of Arabic dance and particularly with the Western dance community. Many Western dancers still don't know what Arabic dance is about. That is not their shortcoming! They are spending many hours a week to learn to do what they do. Most Western dancers are extremely focused individuals and may not always have the time nor the resources to find out about a dance form that is not mainstream. Our task should be to have a dialogue with them, befriend them, and exchange ideas. That will more than likely mean that we will have to initiate that dialogue. We can start by integrating more. Aspiring Arabic dancers should study ballet, modern, jazz or any already respected classical form. Not only will this paint a picture of us as "serious" dancers but we might just learn something in the process.
We need to show the arts community that we are as serious about our art as any ballerina. That means studying various dance forms as often as possible (ballet dancers study for years taking at least 5 classes per week on top of rehearsal time!), practicing daily and keeping our bodies in shape. I do not mean to suggest, by the last statement, that we need to conform to the ballerina's ideal body type, I simply mean that whatever our body type, all working professionals should be able to perform for 45 minutes without becoming over exhausted.
The study of various disciplines will invariably lead to more fusion type dancing. I am not opposed to this. Many non-Arabs can't get past Arabic dance's sexual aspect for the simple fact that the music is so foreign. The quarter notes that are used in the melody do not exist in Western music and so the listener often perceives Arabic music as being off key. In addition, the lyrics are in a foreign tongue and so the Westerner is not as emotionally involved with the dance as an Arab would be. Fusion dance gives people the opportunity to experience Middle Eastern Dance from a more familiar perspective. It may act as kind of an introductory step for the Middle Eastern arts, leading people to want to know more about the more classical forms of Middle Eastern dance and music. Ideally, those who create fusion type dancing should have an intimate knowledge of both forms being fused. We have recently witnessed this musically with the collaboration of Sting and Cheb Mami. Both excel in their chosen form and this created a seamless and inspiring work. Insha'allah (God willing), this will create a broader interest in the Arabic Arts.
Lastly we need to get people interested early! This means more teaching of children. The younger they start, the better they will be and the more passionate they will be. We need this vitality in our dance community. Teaching at Magnet schools, performing arts schools and in summer workshops at highly respected dance schools will not only get people started younger but will put us in the flow of the greater dance /arts community. In order to do this, however it might be necessary to have some kind of accreditation. Whether it be in dance education, dance therapy, dance ethnology or the fine arts we need to have more dancers working toward degrees within the mainstream educational system.
I realize that I have been using the word "mainstream" quite often. Unfortunately, if one wants to be recognized by an entire society or culture this is what will be involved. We need to align ourselves with already established "respected" art forms, with dancers outside our immediate dance community, with arts educators, as well as the general dance media. It is much easier to have a dialogue with someone when you are willing to, at some point, meet them half way. But of course, when you go to Rakassah, please continue to wear your coin bra and carry that sword proudly. We wouldn't want to lose our exuberance and frivolity in the process!
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